Monday, July 9, 2018

"Some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales": Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936/43) and the Scarlet Circle Slayer

Jonathan Stagge--I say this in the most congratulatory sense--has a really nasty mind.  I recommend him to all who have a sound head and a strong heart.

                                                                --Torquemada (English crime fiction critic)

Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler's "Jonathan Stagge" novels, chronicling the investigations of Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake, a small town New England--or possibly Pennsylvania, but I'm pretty sure it's New England--doctor, have rather an unusual origin and chronology.

The hardcover novels, nine in number, appeared as follows (I give my preferred titles first for novels with different US and UK titles):

The Dogs Do Bark (1936, in UK Murder Gone to Earth)
Murder or Mercy? (1937, in US Murder by Prescription)
The Stars Spell Death (1939, in UK Murder in the Stars)
Turn of the Table (1940, in UK as Funeral for Five)
The Yellow Taxi (1942, in UK as Call a Hearse)
The Scarlet Circle (1943, in UK Light from a Lantern)
Death and the Dear Girls (1945, in US Death, My Darling Daughters)
Death's Old Sweet Song (1946)
The Three Fears (1949)

However, these are not the order in which the Hugh Westlake adventures originally appeared.  The original Westake investigations, attributed not to Jonathan Stagge but to Q. Patrick (Richard Webb's original pen name), appeared in serial form in Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, in this order:

The Dogs Do Bark (November 1935) (published as book in late 1936)

The Frightened Landlady (December 1935) (not otherwise published to this date)
The Scarlet Circle (January 1936) (published as book in 1943)
Murder or Mercy? (June 1936) (published as book in late 1937)

The Frightened Landlady, a novella that was Hugh Westlake's second case, has never appeared in book form, while The Scarlet Circle, Westlake's third serial adventure, was only the sixth Hugh Westlake mystery published as a book, seven years after it originally appeared in a magazine.  Why was The Scarlet Circle not published earlier, either in 1937, instead of Murder or Mercy?, or in 1938, when no Stagge book was published?

Could real life events have played a hand in the delayed publication of The Scarlet Circle?  I think so.  Let's go back in time, nearly 81 years to be precise, to a horrific double murder that took place in the borough of Queens, New York.  The following account I have put together from several newspaper sources, not all of them, I must admit, fully congruent with each other (more on that).  So here we go....

On Saturday October 2, 1937, Louis Weiss, a recent honors graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, returned to his home in Queens Village from seeing local favorite the Manhattan Jaspers lose 14-7 in a football contest with visiting Texas A&M at the New York Polo Grounds.

At home Louis ate dinner, put on some old clothes and told his mother (an only child, he lived with his parents and maternal grandparents) that he was going to the Mineola Roller Skating Rink, near the Mineola Fair Grounds in Nassau County, with girlfriend Frances Hajek.  Promising to get home early (he said he was tired from being at the game all day), Louis at 8:30 got into his second-hand coupe, of which he was extremely proud, and drove off, his pet Spitz dog, Teddy, eagerly yapping after him from the house.

A sturdy 6'1" 200 pound 20 year old who had been an esteemed star athlete at Brooklyn Tech and in his free time still loved to play basketball and baseball in vacant lots in Queens Village, Louis worked days at the offices of the American Steel and Wire Company in the Empire State Building and studied nightly at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, hoping to become an electrical engineer.  In the meantime he dutifully turned over his weekly paycheck to his mother.

Louis' girlfriend, vivacious and popular Frances Hajek, auburn-haired and about 5'5" and 115 pounds with a captivating smile, was considered "unusually attractive" by her set, but she was a dutiful young woman and like Louis an only child who lived with her parents.  There she worked the counter of the downstairs bakery of her father, Frank Hajek, an immigrant from Bohemia, who with only an 8th grade education had become a successful businessman, owning the $25,000 two-story building in Queens Village where his bakery was located (today Jamaica Discount Liquors).  Frances had recently graduated from Jamaica High School and was a member of the Queens Village Junior League.

Jamaica Discount Liquors (formerly the site of the Hajek house and bakery)

Louis and Frances left the Mineola Rink around 10:30, stopping off briefly at the Belmont Roller Skating Rink, not far from the Belmont Racetrack.  On their way home they stopped at a bar on Jericho Turnpike to have some beer.  Shortly after midnight they were seen by Thomas Owens, who was driving a newspaper delivery truck.  Owens met the couple in Nassau County, near the Mineola Rink, and gave them instruction on how to get back to Queens. He claimed that there was another man in the back seat of the car, dressed in a soldier's uniform.  Police concluded that this man was a stranger whom Weiss had offered a ride, either in the beer parlor or hitching along the road toward Queens.

Weiss House, Queens Village (middle with green shutters)

Some time around one in the morning Louis drove down a dark dirt road leading off from Springfield Boulevard and Central Parkway, Queens and parked in a local "lovers' lane" deep in Hollis Woods.  Shortly before three in the morning, judging by Louis' smashed wristwatch (that great cliche of Golden Age detective fiction), the lovers' lane became a nightmare alley.

Suddenly a man hopped on the right running board of Louis' coupe, pulled the unlocked door open, leaned in and shot the young man twice in the head, killing him.  Next he grabbed Frances, paralyzed with shock and fear, by her wine-colored zipper combination suit, fired two bullets into her temple, and then, as she breathed her last, repeatedly plunged an ice pick or stiletto into her upper torso.  When discovered by a hiker the next day, Louis still sat slumped over the wheel, as if ready to start driving the car again, while Frances lay sprawled, half-in and half-out of the machine.

1936 Ford Coupe

It was a horrific scene indeed.  The most grotesque detail of all (and pertinent for the purposes of this blog piece) I have saved for last: After shooting Louis and shooting and stabbing Frances, the killer took the young woman's' scarlet lipstick and drew circles on the dead couple's foreheads.  Not unnaturally, newspapers took alliteratively to dubbing the unknown murderer the "scarlet circle slayer."

Police believed that, given the savagery of the attack of Frances, the motive was not robbery, but a raging hatred of the young woman, presumably inspired by intense jeolously.  Police dismissed the idea that the killer of Louis and Frances might have been the "3-X Killer" (so called for the 3-X signed notes he had left at his crime scenes), who achieved national notoriety by shooting two men in lovers' lanes on two separate occasions in 1930.  The women 3-X had let go, suggesting a totally different modus operandi from the scarlet circle slayer.

crime scene photo of the dead couple (note scarlet circles)
See Getty Images for a more graphic photo here
(WARNING: very graphic)
Newspapers screamed bloody murder (FIEND KILLER CAUSES FEAR IN NEW YORK) and dozens police were assigned to investigate the ghastly case, but little headway was made.  A sweep was done of Hollis Woods, but nothing seemingly of significance was discovered besides Frances' red lipstick, which had been discarded by the right front wheel of the car.  The crude camp of, yes, a passing tramp had been discovered, but the tramp had already been arrested for vagrancy and placed in a jail cell when the murders occurred. A perfect alibi! 

Also with alibis were the sizable contingent of patients at nearby Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital. (This case really did have it all.)

With punitive justice all-too typical of its day, one suspects, a young black woman named Betty May McCall also was arrested on a vagrancy charge after admitting to police that she had invented a story of having witnessed the murders of Louis and Francis, and she was committed to the King's County Hospital in Brooklyn.  There were the usual crackpot confessions, like Betty May's fake witness claim, but the police investigation quickly petered out, to the intense dismay of the victims' families.

Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital

The next year in an interview with a print journalist, Frances' father stated that he had surrendered any belief that his beautiful daughter's vicious slayer ever would be found.  Coming out of his bakery kitchen in his white apron and cap to talk the reporter, Frank Hajek declared sadly, "In my mind I have no hope.  There were so many wrong ones.  We [my wife and I] talk about it every night and every morning, but it would be best not to talk at all because then we would sleep better."

last rites for Frances Hajek
the dead girl's parents had to be supported
down the church steps
Frank and his wife Anna rejected the idea that their daughter was participating in a petting party with Louis, arguing that she and Louis must have been forced at gunpoint to drive down that dirt road to their deaths.

Mina Hengst, Louis' maternal grandmother, told a similar sorrowful tale, avowing, "My daughter still cries every day and she cries every night.  She has to go out every day so that she will not think about it too much."

However, it was at this time that the police believed they finally had made a major break in the case, when there came to their attention a local "tough" in Queens Village, Walter Wiley, a nineteen year old newspaper delivery man and sometime movie theater usher who was known in his recreational time, if you will, to brandish both gun and knife.  Walter had boasted to his thug pals that he had robbed Good Humor ice cream trucks and preyed on petting parties in lovers' lanes. 

Walter vanished the day the bodies of Weiss and Hajek were discovered, not reappearing until  November 20 in Baltimore, where he enlisted in the army.  By April 1938 he had deserted. 

In July Walter was extradited to New York from Reno, Nevada, and police hoped to break him down and secure a confession in the Red-O killings, but nothing seems to have come of it.  In fact, the case remains unsolved to this day.  Walter was serving time in Sing Sing Prison in 1940, but on account of other crimes.  Three years after this he was living in Florida, where he married and died three decades later.

Brooklyn Tech

I have a lot of questions about this case, myself.  For one thing, who the heck was the soldier, or the man dressed in an army uniform, whom Thomas Owens saw in the coupe with Louis and Frances?  Why was he not suspected of the crime?  The police discounted robbery, in part because Louis' wallet and black signet ring and Frances' jewelry were not taken, but what happened to her handbag?  One account notes that Louis' wristwatch was not stolen, but if it was smashed, naturally it would not have been. But speaking of the smashed watch, the medical examiner early on supposedly set the time of death as between 11 and midnight.  If, as the other later account states, it took place around three in the morning, this seems at odds with what we early on were told about Louis and Frances being so scrupulous about returning home early to their parents' houses. 

Cooper Union
Frances always "came home early at night, it was said."  Well, if she was in the coupe with Louis until three in the morning, then something unusual was going on.  Friends and family were eager to discount the petting theory.  Herbert Beech, Louis' "close chum" who had attended the football game with him, insisted that Louis was so fussy about his car that he never of his own volition would have driven down a narrow wooded lane like the one in Hollis Woods. Nor did he "park and pet," according to Beech. 

Medical examiner Howard W. Neail speculated at one point that since Frances' lipstick was not smeared, the young couple must have been set upon before any petting could have commenced.  But how does that square with the account that says they were in the car for nearly two hours, from around one to three a.m.?

Jamaica High School

The scarlet circles themselves influenced police thinking that the crime was committed by someone with a warped adolescent brain (i.e., a teenager).  "Most of the detectives held that the symbols might be the work of some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales," says one report.

"It could have been anything," helplessly pronounced the floundering Deputy Inspector Ryan.  "It could be a sadistic maniac, it could be some kid whose been reading mysteries about signs and symbols, it could be someone with a grudge against the girl, or against both the boy and the girl--but we have no direct evidence on anything."

It was even suggested that the killer might have disguised himself as a police patrolman and deviously directed Louis to Hollis Woods and his and Francis' doom.  According to one report Louis' wallet and driver's license lay in the dead boy's hand when he was discovered, as if he had been requested to show it to someone at the car window.

The grave of Frances Hajek
at St. John's Cemetery, Queens
But whatever the solution to this real life mystery, wouldn't it have been rather awkward for mystery writers Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler and their publisher to have published as a hardcover novel a few bare months after this terrible crime The Scarlet Circle, a story which originated in a pulp fiction magazine about a serial murderer who strangles female victims, then draws scarlet circles on their bodies with their lipsticks?  Especially when the police are bemoaning the impact on adolescent minds of "cheap mystery tales"?  Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time to let The Scarlet Circle lie until 1943, when Rickie and Hugh, about to go into the army, needed something that could quickly be published as a hardcover book and reached back to an old pulp fiction piece--one which may have partly inspired a depraved and never detected murderer.


  1. Wow! I was not familiar with this true-crime story, and it looks like a very good reason to postpone publication.
    It also explains what would otherwise seem to be an error in the chronology: until this book, the age of Dr Westlake's daughter Dawn had been creeping slowly upwards, albeit in a petty pace - from ten to twelve (The Yellow Taxi, published in 1942, takes place in December of her twelfth year, and as her birthday is in January - according to Murder or Mercy? - she would even be close to thirteen), but in the 1943 book she is described as being eleven.
    Which may be all for the best - even those of us who enjoy her presence in the books (as I do) may shudder at the thought of what a teenage Dawn would be like, and given the theme of The Scarlet Circle it could have been particularly creepy.

    1. Yes, I read Dogs Do Bark first and then Scarlet Circle, some years ago, and thought it weird that Dawn had not aged at all! Now, as you say, it makes sense.

    2. In the pulp version of The Scarlet Circle there's a scene where it's pointed out that Dawn has a large mole on her body, suggesting she could become a victim of the murderer! Hugh took this out of the book version.

    3. In the pulp versions of The Frightened Landlady and The Scarlet Circle, Dawn is nine. Don't know about the pulp versions of Dogs or Murder or Mercy? Would love to see them.

  2. Very interesting, and your theory is quite plausible.

    Also interestingly (or not), with one exception, the Swedish translations always translated the title you preferred.

    MURDER GONE TO EARTH 1936 (The dogs do bark)
    Hör hundarnas skall
    MURDER OR MERCY? 1937 (Murder by prescription)
    Mord eller nåd
    THE STARS SPELL DEATH 1939 (Murder in the stars)
    Stjärnorna spå död
    TURN OF THE TABLE 1940 (Funeral for five)
    THE YELLOW TAXI 1942 (Call a hearse)
    Den gula taxin
    THE SCARLET CIRCLE 1943 (Light from a lantern)
    DEATH, MY DARLING DAUGHTERS 1945 (Death and the dear girls)
    Dödens sång
    De tre fasorna

    The one exception is the case you're referring to in your post above, "The Scarlet Circle" where the Swedish title (literally "The Paper Lantern") is more based on the UK title.

    (It should also be said that the Swedish title for "Death My Darling Daughters" is not based on either English title and literally means "The Silver Flute".)

    Obviously the Swedish translators had more or less the same taste as you. :)

  3. I do have my reasons. Dogs Do Bark and Murder or Mercy? were the original serial titles and I think were what the authors had in my mind. Ellery Queen thought Light from a Lantern too tame, I tend to agree. I think the English edition of Death My Darling Daughters was published first and I like "Dear Girls."


  5. Thanks very much for sharing this intriguing true crime connection, and congratulations on all of the stellar research and synthesis of data. I enjoyed The Grindle Nightmare and have been meaning to return to the Webb/Wheeler collaborations. as I have never read a Jonathan Stagge novel, one of these titles seems like a good next choice! All best wishes --

    1. Got a Q. Patrick piece in the works, and more about the matter of who wrote what.